My keen eye missed reminders of war
AS a professional observer for more than half a century of my home town of Great Yarmouth, reporting on changing places and faces, comings and goings and highs and lows, I prided myself that I knew most of the nooks and crannies of our borough and that even subtle alterations to the long-familiar did not escape my scrutiny.
AS a professional observer for more than half a century of my home town of Great Yarmouth, reporting on changing places and faces, comings and goings and highs and lows, I prided myself that I knew most of the nooks and crannies of our borough and that even subtle alterations to the long-familiar did not escape my scrutiny...only to find that my lengthy hawk-eye surveillance has been found sadly wanting.
It is an ego-deflating experience.
The only excuse I can offer for not spotting the multiplicity these once important little buildings is that most are off the beaten track and partially concealed by vegetation and camouflage. Even so, it is still a mystery how they eluded me for seven decades.
Recently I wrote about pillboxes, those sturdy little bunkers hastily erected after the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940 when there were fears of a German invasion of Britain; there were as many as 26,000 nationwide, two of which survive on either side of the Acle New Road just outside Yarmouth, I said.
“There must be several others in the Yarmouth neighbourhood that have easily withstood the test of time,” I added. Several others in the Yarmouth area? That was a gross understatement, it transpired.
For I had not reckoned with Mike Keenan, of Lichfield Road, Southtown, a military memorabilia enthusiast to whom I am grateful for drawing my attention to his internet photographs of a bumper collection of pillboxes hereabouts. One or two I pass regularly without noticing them, while the majority are less prominent.
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“I read your comments on second world war pillboxes in a recent Mercury and, while on an internet photograph site, I saw many pictures of pillboxes in the area, so out of interest I had a look round to see how many I could find,” says Mr Keenan, a 54-year-old offshore crane operator. “You will be surprised how many are still left.
“Using a lot of childhood memory, I found five in Cobholm alone. One you can see travelling over the new Breydon Bridge towards Gorleston, on the right-hand side in the first field; it made the news when a horse got stuck in it. The rest are in the allotments and behind the T K Maxx store (on the Gapton retail park). They must have defended the old railway bridge. I used to play near one in a field behind Docwra's scrapyard. There were a few in the old Brown and Root yard on the opposite side, but only one remains, in a car park on Suffolk Road.”
Mike, whose interest in militaria was inspired by his father, Robert, a D-Day veteran, travelled into north-east Norfolk and down the Suffolk coast in his camera-toting quest for pillboxes, gun emplacements and other surviving reminders of 1939-45. It was a mission that brought him satisfying rewards.
Apart from the twin pillboxes on the Acle New Road, he was already aware of one near the old North Denes airfield at Yarmouth “only because I used to fly offshore from there and I saw it from the helicopter.” It is beside old farm buildings and forms a line with one on Caister Road and one at the River Bure bend, the twin of which has long gone. On Caister beach only the concrete roof is visible of a pillbox sinking imperceptibly into sand and sea.
Going north to south down the coast, Mike logged one at Walcott near the village entrance; six at Happisburgh; two at Cart Gap - one in a field on the drive to the beach, the other incorporated into the sea wall; Sea Palling; in dunes at Horsey; in the Hemsby Beach Holiday Village and on the sands, almost sunk from sight; at California on the California Road, with a spigot mortar mounting next to it; near the old Royal Air Force radar station on the clifftop between Hopton and Corton; also at Corton, a group on the cliffs and in woods, one of them sinking...
Inland, Mike found one of the two located at Wayford Bridge; one in the heart of Acle, covering the main roads in and out; at Halvergate, on the first bend on the Branch Road leading from the Stracey Arms; an unusual very small ivy-covered one at West Caister; in a field between the main A12 Yarmouth-Lowestoft Road and Sidegate Road at Hopton.
I was surprised to learn of the presence of a pillbox that I drive past very often. That is at St Olaves in a boatyard beside the main road bridge, but its once significant role was not apparent because it has a a wooden summerhouse-like building perched on top! Also in that village is a pillbox beside the railway line and the New Cut.
Of course, there might well be others that somehow escaped the keen Keenan radar... Mike admits: “There are probably more than I found in the Yarmouth area. Some I found by sheer luck, but generally they are usually grouped or in a line.”
From Mike Keenan and another highly reliable source - Caister-based author and historian Colin Tooke's latest book, Great Yarmouth: The New Town - came information on the pillbox at White Gate Farm on Caister Road, named because of the gate across the causeway that led from the town to the village.
The author calls it “a cleverly-disguised half-pillbox built on to the end wall of farm buildings.”
Mike's father, from North Shields, was called up in 1943 and served in the 6th Guards Tank Brigade. His son tells me: “He landed in France on D-Day +15 and went through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, escaping death on a number of close occasions.”